Zacchaeus in Tap Shoes

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In Christ’s day, tax collectors were to sin what prophets were to virtue. In the succeeding 2000 years, several professions have been added to both sides of that moral balance. One is Hollywood stars. More on that later.

As we see in Sunday’s gospel reading (Lk 19:1-10), one of Jesus’s greatest miracles was his ability to upset that balance by turning tax collectors into disciples. In fact the mix of sin and sincere in the story of Zacchaeus offers the makings of a great Hollywood comedy, starring as it does a short, funny-looking oddball. The comedy ensues when this little sinner has to climb a tall sycamore to get a good look at the miracle worker he’s heard everybody talking about—Jesus. Out of all the people who were also positioning themselves to get a glimpse, Jesus gets a look at Zacchaeus sitting up high in that tree and tells him to come down for a nice long chat.

The resulting encounter converts this sinner to faith. Fairy tale? Maybe a Hollywood fantasy come true.

The 20th century offers another example of a funny-looking little sinner whose conversion to faith was actually part of a twofer involving a former lover. Both this little guy and the beautiful starlet accompanying him on this encounter with the sublime were two of Hollywood’s biggest self-professed sinners in their heyday of 1960s free love. But faith and fate would free both of them from continuously climbing the hazardous and impossible heights of fame.  

This unlikely pairing was Sammy Davis Jr. and Lola Falana. A fling united them in the 1960s, but after eventually going their separate ways, illness would cause both of them to climb the heights of faith to get a better glimpse of a God they didn’t know—just as Zacchaeus did.

Falana contracted multiple sclerosis in 1987. The prospect of this formerly energetic starlet being frozen in paralysis scared both this dancer and her former fling, the one who made a career out of his own energetic tap stylings. She resorted to prayer, but unbeknownst to her, so did Sammy.

Miraculously, Falana would start recovering from MS. She was so amazed by this miracle, she wanted to share it with her friend. The sight of her walking into his Caesar’s Palace dressing room in 1988 brought him to tears, according to the Sammy biography, “In Black & White.” Falana quoted him: “I don’t pray that much,” he told her, “but I said to God, ‘I know I’ve tried your patience, but this friend of mine, if you would just heal her, I’d turn my face to you the rest of my life.’”

Turns out, throat cancer made sure Sammy didn’t have much life left to live. But while he was dying in May of 1990, Falana entered his hospital room for another visit so they could share a last smile. He was in and out of a coma, but when she came in, he opened his eyes, and with the “good one”—the one God let him keep after a 1954 car accident—he smiled. And as Falana recalled, that right eye shined “the brightest light I’d ever seen on his face.”

The prayers Falana credits this friend with saying invites an amusing bit of fantasy casting. Imagine the diminutive, one-eyed Sammy Davis Jr. as Zacchaeus, climbing a sycamore to get a better look at the miracle worker he’d only heard of, but would eventually ask to cure his friend. Then imagine that as Sammy’s eyes close for the last time, God invites him down from the heights of fame that kept him so far above the kingdom Jesus said was among us while we’re on this finite earth. What follows is a close encounter with the infinite.

As she bides her time for that same meeting, Falana’s revived Catholicism inspired her to tour the U.S. and share her spirituality with others searching for a more elevated viewpoint. May all of us short-sighted souls keep climbing the heights of faith to get a glimpse of the infinite hope little Zacchaeus finally reached for—and grasped.

–Tom Andel

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